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Richard Dawson - Nothing Important

Posted on Monday, 3 November 2014 | No Comments

The comsos in the Tyne.

The last remnants of some spilt beer that reach the gaze like asteroids floating serenely amidst the void: flip over the package, and the foamy tide has been branded in gold, NOTHING IMPORTANT screaming out at you, a drunkard's idea of revelation. It's a wry bit of artwork alright, stopping just before it gets too on the nose for comfort - eternity in abandoned suds isn't that far from the epiphanies that Richard Dawson so consistently digs up from the quiet chaos of everyday life.
It's a nice signpost, in its way, for the increasingly unruly and delightful trajectory of Richard Dawson's art. When he took his first bow in 2007 with Sings Songs and Plays Guitar, he was a comfortably rumpled troubadour, his playing nodding to jazz and his voice boasting a fine grainy power but still very much within singer-songwriter tradition, he was a quiet but loved fixture on the local Newcastle circuit. But as his work became increasingly ambitious - see the five dramatically more ambitious and lyrically dextrous songs found on the four-way split Dawson May Jazzfinger Clay - it became impossible to imagine that this talent could go un-noticed by the wider world much longer. Come 2011's monumental The Magic Bridge (discussed in suitably breathless terms here), where Dawson's songwriting and performances leaped to a whole new level entirely, and his obscurity came to resemble nothing less than an outrage, an indictment of a industry incapable of recognising brilliance when it stands right before them.

But a breakthrough of sorts came with, of all things, a largely acapella record based on museum archives and old folk tales, leavened with frantic improv duels between Dawson's electric guitar and the frazzled harp playing of recurring sparring partner Rhodri Davies. If The Magic Bridge pushes against the edges of convention, The Glass Trunk marked a final moment of division from the concept of the singer-songwriter. The sparse, unsettling songs found within placed the focus of Dawson's powerful, raw vocals and the intense detail and vivid storytelling of his lyrics, and found within the depths of folk tradition the links that run to our modern age, proof that Dawson has is no mere traditionalist. In stripping his work down to its constituent elements - the voice over here, the guitar over there - The Glass Trunk seems to have allowed the wider world a way into Dawson's work, and amongst the acclaim that album rightfully received and the increased national (and even international) attention he finally received, here comes at the end the most unlikely and beautiful twist in the tale yet - the lad's only gone and signed to Domino. To be precise, he's on their Weird World imprint, making for a real Odd Couple brotherhood with fellow Weird World artist How To Dress Well, it's the Domino money all the same.

As such, Nothing Important ends up by default as his major statement to date, gaining a level of distribution and press coverage far beyond anything Dawson has previously experienced. All things are relative of course - it seems unlikely that he's about to displace the dread Arctic Monkeys as Domino's prime cash cow just yet (although by inadvertently financing this release, Nothing Important does mark the first plausible answer to the question "just what is the use of Alex Turner anyway?") - but go into your local WHSmiths, and there's his face beaming up from the cover of The Wire. It is also, quite naturally, his most complex and challenging release yet.

The track-listing might seem svelte, but appearances are deceptive. Bookended by two shorter instrumental pieces, the album is weighed down by two new epic-length songs of fifteen-minutes plus, both of which use up every valuable second to the maximum. The raw production sound of The Magic Bridge returns here, where Dawson's acoustic is amped-up and left to distort, background stomps are left in for percussive heft and additional backing is not forthcoming, and the dynamics are frankly fierce: on the title track is particular, quiet, soothing lulls are apt to explode and detonate into fiery roars and hammering, fracturing playing. Certainly, the increased level of risk with which Dawson throws around his two key instruments is unmistakeable. The Vile Stuff boasts terrific, terrifying screams and wails that suggest the influence of his time adding additional guitar to underground doom band Khuunt, while opening instrumental Judas Iscariot is a lurching chromatic stomp, a children's television theme tune dragged out and smashed up, glued back together in the wrong order and left to melt in sun, an ideal canvas for the hallucinatory river of memories and dredged-up life that makes up the title track.

Indeed, listening back to Nothing Important the song with lyric sheet in hand, what truly stands out is divorced this is from how 'serious' art is meant to acknowledge memory. From James Joyce to B.S. Johnson, the narrative of the stream of consciousness has been elevated to an ideal, enshrined as the proper way with which to go about depicting the messy nature of our grey matter slipping in and out of action. Yet this is a song that plays along with the idea only to refute it, to rage against it. We track the birth of the young Dawson through into various youthful memories and family events, the music gamely dipping and weaving its way along, but then that chorus keeps bursting through, that cry of human insignificance. It's not with nihilism or anger that Dawson establishes our microscopic impact, but with an appalled awe at the human blindness to the might of the universe, and how the very smallest details of life are never really about us but instead beautiful, brief portals into the cosmic sublime. He refutes the form of memory that remembers objects over people: this is an anti-nostalgic act, an attempt to challenge accepted ways of understanding memory so as to gain new lessons and new significance from these buried lessons. The topsy-turvy recollections of the song cease in the shocking final verse, a statement of blunt fact that pierces through the accumulation of detail to deliver a moment of terrible, touching stillness (quite understandably, Dawson discusses his initial reluctance to incorporate this detail into the song during his interview in The Wire). The stream of consciousness can only go so far if one is to avoid the solipsism that afflicted the brilliant but frustrating, frustrated Johnson. The bigger picture the smaller parts build is not a picture of the individual, but of the world that contains it.

The other major work on the album, The Vile Stuff is at once more intense and far more light than the (still witty) title track. I discussed it briefly previously as part of a live review, but it's worth further consideration. Starting with a first dabbling in drink on a school trip alongside his even-more-addled classmates, the track runs and runs into tragicomic picaresque, our hero witnessing and also experiencing all kinds of strange mishap and misadventure. It's a tale of trying to grow and emerge even whilst failing to learn all kinds of lessons, and it's a fine example of Dawson's great ability to use specific, unquestionably personal anecdotes to make a song far more relatable and human. Where so many songwriters think universal appeal lies in removing all traces of a recognisable self from the song, Dawson flies in the opposite direction, delivering images so idiosyncratic in their detail - damaging the tendons in his hand whilst trying to pry open a coconut with a Phillips head screwdriver for one - that we get to experience something far more honest and human as a result. And yes, Dawson imbues this curious tale with his most intense and exhausting vocal and guitar playing to date, pushing himself to a new intensity without sacrificing the warmth in his work. By the end, you're left as reeling and dazed as the young Dawson was in Featherstone Castle.

Nothing Important is an unquestionably emotional work, but not in the same way as the vast majority of singer-songwriters are. Too often, emotional is just accepted as a synonym for an angst that never evolved beyond puberty, for self-pitying nonsense and overwrought gloom. The emotion in Dawson's work is not there to cheaply claw at the heartstrings, but to represent the constant wonder and fear that is life itself. His work acknowledges that wit and wisdom can be the same thing, that awe must sit alongside doubt if one is to cope and function. As his mastery of the craft continues to grow and he pushes himself yet further and further down his deeply individual road, he mines down deeper still into the great well of human experience, challenging and confronting himself so that we may all learn about our shared humanity. It's not for told-you-so vindication or the delight of seeing a truly humble, generous and talented human succeed that the joy in seeing his work reach a much wider audience lies: it's in the realisation that as more people become attuned to this remarkable talent, both performer and listener can learn some hilarious, sad and profound new truths. Nothing Important? Oh, give over Richard.

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